Manchester City eviscerated Manchester United in the derby, with three superb individual attacking performances from Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden.
1) We’re barely into October, yet across sports desks the length and breadth of the country thesauruses are already starting to fall to pieces with over-use. This was an extraordinary afternoon in Manchester. City won the derby and scored six goals. Manchester United scored three for an eventual three-goal deficit that flattered them to a considerable degree. That, it would appear, is just how wide the gap is this season.
There’s been a suspicion since the summer that this Manchester City team is the best they’ve ever had, and that the Premier League title is theirs for the taking. Sorry Arsenal fans, but they’re just really, really good, and they proved just how good against a Manchester United team who left the pitch at the end of this match with the confidence built up over their last few Premier League matches looking severely shaken.
2) But this Manchester derby arrived with both clubs being in a better place than they were in at the end of last season. In the case of Manchester City that means even better, and this may be largely attributable to Haalanditis. The Norwegian goaltomaton took precisely one game to slot seamlessly into Pep’s system and has been blasting in goals like an improbable football cannon since. How many goals will he score this season? Forty? Sixty? It’s probably only a matter of time before some members of football’s brains trust or others wonder aloud whether he can break the Premier League’s all-time goalscoring record in one season.
But it’s not only the sky blue half of Manchester that has been feeling sanguine. United had started to regain the slightest aura of swagger with four straight league wins, which included the considerable confidence-boosters of beating both Liverpool and Arsenal. Their summer transfer activity eventually ended up looking like a success that fell into their lap (Frenkie de Who?). That Christian Eriksen seemed overlooked by so many clubs during the summer that United were able to pick him up with relatively little resistance remains a surprise. Antony, Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia had all been obvious, notable upgrades. Many of the most disruptive elements had finally been cauterised from the club, and the dressing room is no longer leaking like a sieve.
And for all the improvements brought about by having clout in the transfer market, it seemed clear that Erik ten Hag has the chops to coach at this level. It is notable that of the seven goals scored by Manchester United in the Premier League this season, all bar one have been scored by players who were with the club last season. Marcus Rashford, who was starting to receive derision for his tail-off over the previous year or two, was the Premier League’s Player of the Month for September. Those first two matches against Brighton and Brentford both seem like a very long time ago already.
3) But all the confidence in the world is only worth so much when you’re faced with a tidal wave from more or less the kick-off from a team that had scored 30 goals in their previous seven league matches. Manchester City took eight minutes to take the lead, but they should have been at least one goal up by then regardless, after a bit of a scramble when De Bruyne’s shot was saved by De Gea and Silva’s follow-up was blocked by Scott McTominay. From the outset, the swarming movement in attacking positions and the dizzying array of options to City players when they moved into advanced positions looked almost impossible to defend against.
4) But for all the 3D chess that many persuade themselves that Pep is perpetually playing in his own head, sometimes the most striking thing about his team is how simple and elegant their football can be. There was nothing rigorously demanding about their opening goal. Cancelo to an overlapping Silva, who dragged the ball back for Phil Foden to sweep the ball past De Gea with his first touch.
This is the work that goes on behind the scenes. The players knew exactly where to be and what to do. The technique, every touch, every movement, was regimented and executed perfectly. They made it look easy, far too easy. And while there is a tendency to always reflexively blame a defensive unit when an opponent works a way through it, there is a case for asking what any defence can realistically do when the opposing butter knife is this hot.
5) Manchester City had clearly identified the right side of the Manchester United team as a weak spot to be overloaded. Diogo Dalot was yellow carded after two minutes. On the substitutes’ bench Casemiro, who still hasn’t started for them, glowered alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Casemiro was eventually introduced in the second half, by which time it was far too late for him to make anything like an appreciable difference to the outcome of the game. Ronaldo, however, was not, and for all we know he’s still sitting on the away bench at The Etihad Stadium with smoke coming out of his ears.
6) The chances kept coming. Gundogan hit the outside of the post with a free-kick. Foden shot narrowly wide. De Bruyne had a free-kick tipped onto the crossbar. Manchester United, meanwhile, were also on the pitch, but it was difficult to hold this thought in your head, at times. Sloppy, nervous-looking and simply unable to cope with the endless waves of attacks, United barely troubled City’s half of the pitch, playing as though the confidence that seemed to have been building over the previous few weeks had drained away as quickly as it arrived.
7) As ever, Erling Haaland seemed to do a little until he did a lot. And then he did it again. Twice inside four minutes, to be precise, Erling from the Block scored, first with a header from a corner under a challenge of little to no consequence and then by stretching his enormous frame to touch home a delicious curling ball from De Bruyne.
8) As if to serve as a reminder that this is not a one-man team, Foden added a fourth a minute from half-time. Again, it was a goal that demanded the cool-headed presence of Casemiro in a defensive position. De Bruyne surged through the middle and passed wide left to Haaland, and his low ball across the United penalty area was converted at the far post. Simple, simple, simple. Clean lines, space opening up, and emphatic finishing.
9) With the fourth goal came a further trope very much in keeping with the sensibilities of modern football as Sky Sports switched their cameras to outside The Etihad Stadium where we could, indeed, see them sneaking out. Of course, at thirty quid for an away ticket it’s hardly a huge financial burden to do so, but this image wasn’t the only one to flash across our screens on this day which felt like Manchester United being plunged into the same hot water in which they’ve found themselves so repeatedly over the last decade or so. Half-time in a Premier League match and 4-0 down for the second time this season, familiar insecurities that had been conspicuous largely by their absence in recent weeks, were starting to reassert themselves.
10) Erling Haaland can best be considered as some sort of thought experiment made flesh. There is a simple, understated elegance to him which renders derision of the number of touches he take impotent and pointless. Combined with his sheer physical power and dexterity and the way in which he plays, always watching other players rather than the ball itself, and we have a player who always seems to be a step or two ahead of everyone else around him.
But what we’ve seen repeatedly this season is that, although he’s scoring an almost obscene volume of goals, this is categorically not a ‘one-man’ team. Haaland has formed a triumvirate with Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden which, with support behind that can usually get the ball to them into an attacking position with a little bit of space, simply seems unplayable, most of the time.
But Haaland doesn’t only seem likely to set all sorts of individual records. He’s also lifting those around him to new heights, and if there’s a glimmer of light for the supporters of other Premier League clubs, it’s that neither him or De Bruyne have especially stellar records with injuries. But it doesn’t really say very much for the other defences in the Premier League if the best – only? – chance of these two being stopped is one or both of them getting injured.
11) With 19 minutes of the second half played, Haaland struck again for his third consecutive hat-trick in home games, this time thrashing the ball in from a Gomez cross on the right. He could be forgiven for wondering what all this fuss about the Premier League as a pinnacle of global league football was, because he seems to be finding it all rather easy.
12) Prior to this game, only two Manchester City players had ever scored a hat-trick in a Manchester derby, but with 18 minutes still to play of this match they doubled that tally when Foden completed his, this time assisted by Haaland. At the end of the game, Foden grabbed the match ball and had it tucked under his arm. Never mind, though. Haaland will probably be running out of space for them soon. With the sixth goal, Pep made a quadruple substitution, confirming that this match had been rendered little more than a training match. It may have been a decision that he had cause for a tiny pang of regret by the end.
13) Because by the the full-time whistle, Manchester United had at least pulled the score back to something approaching respectable. Antony had scored perhaps the best goal of the nine, a curling shot from outside the penalty area, and two late goals from Antony Martial pulled the score back to a somewhat unlikely 6-3. Perhaps replacing four players at the same time wasn’t such a brilliant idea, not that it made any material difference to the outcome.
14) And that final scoreline flattered Manchester United. There is a case to be made that playing a team in this sort of blistering form is a mitigation of sorts for Erik ten Hag, but he may well be alarmed at the nervous and sloppy nature of their first-half performance and will be fully aware of the fact that his team only found anything like a route back into the match considerably after the result was done and dusted. If anything, United’s performance in this game was proof of how fragile confidence can be in its early stages. There was no showing up on the big occasion, this time around.
What will now be critical is how they respond to this result. Will they go out in their next few games and reassert the big club casual arrogance they’d been starting to display again in their last few games before the international break, or will they sink back into an extremely Manchester United-esque slough of despond? Time will tell, but Ten Hag certainly has a lot to think about, with Newcastle, Spurs and Chelsea among their opponents in a packed October schedule.
15) But while there is little positive to say about United’s performance, criticism of them should perhaps be tempered by the sheer brilliance of the opposition. Haaland is reaching the point at which we’re all merely repeating ourselves in our exaltations of him. Kevin De Bruyne seems to have plugged straight into Haaland’s wave-length, and Phil Foden seems similarly to have been lifted to another plane by his arrival. Manchester United can – possibly? perhaps? – take some solace from the fact that this just seems to be what Manchester City do now, and that it almost certainly won’t be the last time that they do it this season. It’s the second time they’ve done it in their first eight games.
16) Social media is awash with phrases like ‘cheat code’ in relation to Haaland, but if anything this is something a little different. Erling Haaland hasn’t come to Manchester City as a direct result of the club’s infinite money. He’s there because his dad played for the club, because he has a chance of playing with one of the very best coaches in the world, and a club where silverware has flowed like fine wine, in recent years. The coach and the set-up may well be a direct result of the infinite money, but there is an emotional attachment there. And of course, he used a system.
He also… didn’t cost an astronomical amount of money. City got in early and met his release clause amount of £51.2m. You could buy just short of four Haalands for the price that PSG paid Barcelona for Neymar, which tells a story both of how PSG overpaid so dramatically for that particular player and what a sensational piece of business this was for City. And City are never going to be a one-man team. Not with the supporting cast behind him.
A lot of people had fears over the summer that Haaland would turn the Premier League into a procession. What’s happening may be even more extreme than that as he lifts those around him. And while there is a debate to be had about the extent to which this could all end up damaging the Premier League, it is also incumbent on teams playing against Manchester City to find a way of shutting them out. At the moment, this doesn’t seem particularly likely.